Jean Arthur movies
“A 17-film tribute to the quintessential comedic leading lady.”
Pathologically shy and quite difficult off-screen, Jean Arthur exuded great charm, warmth, and genuine feeling on-screen – qualities as rare then as they are now. Perhaps it’s true that she vomited each time before she had to appear in front of a camera, but you could never tell by looking at her in classics such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and A Foreign Affair.
Along with Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, and Irene Dunne, Arthur was one of the top light comediennes of the studio era. (Myrna Loy was always a pleasure to watch, but she wasn’t really funny; Katharine Hepburn could be funny, though in her relatively few comedies of the ’30s and ’40s she often displayed a metallic quality that made her lightheartedness feel quite heavy indeed.)
Arthur’s comedy characters, however, were more complex than those played by the other stars of the period. As author John Oller explains in Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, “in both comedy and drama, she projected an unusual mix of toughness and vulnerability, of skepticism and idealism, of confidence and fear. The Arthur heroine’s pluckiness is almost always accompanied by a nagging sense of anxiety and bewilderment. Comparing her to another famous Jean, author James Harvey has aptly observed that ‘if Harlow is the tough girl who doesn’t know what it is to be nervous, Arthur is the tough girl who does.'”
As a teenager watching Jean Arthur’s mostly black-and-white movies on television decades after her film career was over, I became fascinated by this most unlikely of Hollywood stars. Arthur wasn’t beautiful, glamorous, sexy, or exotic. Her professional women – reporters, secretaries, salesgirls with names like Mary Smith, Mary Jones, and Molly Truesdale – didn’t project a larger-than-life screen persona. To this cynical romantic – her characters and myself have that paradox in common – Arthur’s allure lay in her deceptive “averageness.” She looked like a blonde, sparkling-toothed version of millions of women everywhere, while displaying an unusual mix of resilience, intelligence, and compassion the likes of which are hardly ever found either in life or on screen. Those qualities also help to explain why Arthur, despite (or perhaps because of) her obvious vulnerability, almost always came across as stronger, more mature, and more interesting than her leading men.
Now, a distinction should be made between two radically different Jean Arthurs.
During the 1920s, those days when movies didn’t have a voice, Arthur was nothing more than an insipid brunette ingénue who was rapidly demoted to insipid brunette nothingness in grade Z Westerns in which the heroes’ horses had better roles and more screen time than she did. Near the end of the decade, apparently thanks to her intimate relationship with David O. Selznick, she was promoted back to ingénue roles, or to parts in which she was the girl who lost the boy to the star.
The advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s did little to enhance her uncharismatic screen presence in spite of a delightfully grating (gratingly delightful?) squeaky voice which she herself once described as a “foghorn.”
Film historian Anthony Slide once told me that while watching the campy 1929 slice of exotica The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, he couldn’t tell the difference between the “normal” Jean Arthur and the hypnotized Jean Arthur – a victim of the malefic Dr. Fu’s powers – for the actress looked and sounded as if she was in a trance throughout the whole film. (Having seen both The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu and its follow-up, The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, I have to concur.)
Curiously, after leaving Hollywood for Broadway in the early ’30s, Arthur underwent a dramatic makeover. When she took another stab at film acting a couple of years later, she had not only turned into a full-fledged blonde but she had also – as if by magic – developed the required technique for “effortless” film acting. Whether the result of solid stage training or of the hypnotic powers of some Broadway Dr. Fu, the new Jean Arthur returned to Hollywood in possession of a seemingly self-confident style that allowed the actress to use her eyes, mannerisms, and foghorn to best advantage.
Both Jean Arthurs can be seen, examined, and compared to one another in the TCM film series.
In fact, the best thing about TCM’s Jean Arthur tribute – apart from the fact that it is taking place – is that TCM hasn’t relied solely on Arthur’s handful of films made for, or distributed by, MGM and RKO (e.g., Public Hero #1, The Devil and Miss Jones, A Lady Takes a Chance).
Instead, even though TCM will show a few of the films found in the Time Warner library (The Silver Horde, Danger Lights, the aforementioned Public Hero #1), its tribute will focus on Arthur’s work at Columbia, including several rarities such as If You Could Only Cook, Adventure in Manhattan, Party Wire, and The Impatient Years. (A minor complaint: As far as I know, TCM has never shown the 1933 RKO crime melodrama The Past of Mary Holmes, in which Arthur has a supporting role. To the best of my knowledge, that film still exists.)
The tribute, being held every Tuesday evening, started this past Jan. 2 with Howard Hawks’ macho Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra’s Americorna tales You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (above, with James Stewart), and John Ford’s all-but-forgotten little gem The Whole Town’s Talking. (If I were to pick between the revered Stagecoach and the funny, unpretentious The Whole Town’s Talking, the latter would definitely be my choice.)
I’m not a fan of Only Angels Have Wings, a contrived adventure melodrama set among air couriers in South America, in which Arthur manages to hold her own opposite a badly miscast Cary Grant (who talks tough, but looks like he’d rather be taking a foam bath in a Park Avenue bathtub), a sultry Rita Hayworth (who would replace Arthur as Columbia’s top star in the mid-1940s), and comeback kid Richard Barthelmess (who steals the movie).
But I actually do like both You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington despite Frank Capra’s overbearingly idealistic mindset and the presence of James Stewart as Arthur’s romantic interest. Stewart – seemingly most everyone’s idea of the perfect all-American Average Man – is my idea of the perfectly phony All-Hollywood Actor. (In the photo, Stewart hugs Arthur while Lionel Barrymore plays the harmonica in the madcap You Can’t Take It with You.)
Jean Arthur, however, shines in both Capra films (even though her role in Mr. Smith is subordinate to Stewart’s), and in The Whole Town’s Talking, in which she initially feels superior to and then falls for her third most unlikely romantic partner: frog-faced Edward G. Robinson.
I say that Robinson – hilarious in two roles, that of a tough criminal and his mild-mannered look-alike – was Arthur’s “third most unlikely” leading man because as far as I’m concerned, the Arthur-Stewart (mis)match remains the most absurd, followed by her pairing with a wooden John Wayne in the 1943 comedy A Lady Takes a Chance. Robinson may not have been the greatest-looking guy in the world, but he may well have been the greatest American film actor ever.
Next Tuesday, Jan. 9, TCM will show Jean Arthur’s three films with the underappreciated Joel McCrea, who could do quite well in drama and who was a first-rate light comedian.
The three films are the tedious 1930 melodrama The Silver Horde, in which a pre-stardom Arthur – still a brunette – plays second banana to star Evelyn Brent; Adventure in Manhattan, a rarely screened 1936 comedy-thriller directed by Edward Ludwig; and George Stevens’ 1943 romantic comedy The More the Merrier (co-written by Arthur’s then husband, Frank Ross).
Arthur won her sole Academy Award nomination for her performance in the Stevens film set in overcrowded wartime Washington, where she shares a small apartment with McCrea and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Charles Coburn at his most avuncular. (Personally, I find Arthur’s performance in Stevens’ 1942 comedy-drama The Talk of the Town to be her finest.)
On Jan. 16, TCM will show four Jean Arthur comedies: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, in which she plays opposite master light comedian William Powell; the little-seen If You Could Only Cook, a moderately entertaining comedy that pairs an excellent Arthur with classy Herbert Marshall; More Than a Secretary (right), a screwball comedy with the usually dead-on-arrival George Brent (the fact that it’s directed by the deft Alfred E. Green, however, is a plus); and the 1940 bigamy comedy Too Many Husbands.
A less effective take on the My Favorite Wife theme – spouse is dead; get new spouse; old spouse is not dead after all; why does life have to be so complicated? – Too Many Husbands is another little-seen Arthur vehicle. In the film, she marries both the invariably delightful Melvyn Douglas and the (almost) invariably dull Fred MacMurray.
On Jan. 23, there will be four Arthur dramas: The minor 1930 melo Danger Lights, with a pre-stardom Arthur doing what myriad other starlets of the period could have done equally well (or equally poorly); Public Hero #1, opposite tough guy Chester Morris and Lionel Barrymore; and the super-rare 1935 drama Party Wire, an attack on small-town narrow-mindedness starring stone-faced Victor Jory as, according to the TCM synopsis, “the most eligible bachelor in town” (what kinda town that would be, I don’t know).
On Jan. 30, there will be another rarity: Irving Cummings’ 1944 romantic comedy-drama The Impatient Years, from a screenplay by the not completely unreliable Virginia Van Upp (best known for producing Gilda), which has Arthur and the now just about totally forgotten Lee Bowman trying to rekindle their feelings for one another.
That same evening, two Arthur Westerns: Arizona, an expensive 1940 production directed by Wesley Ruggles, and co-starring a very young William Holden and a very middle-aged Warren William; and Shane, George Stevens’ elegiac mix of romanticism and realism in the Old American West.
Written by A. B. Guthrie Jr., from a novel by Jack Schaefer, Shane stars Alan Ladd as a gunslinger trying to escape his violent past. Needless to say, the past won’t leave the poor renegade alone.
The 52-year-old Arthur plays Ladd’s romantic interest (he was 12 years younger than she), but their romance, of course, can’t be consummated. No, age has nothing to do with it. In fact, most of Arthur’s leading men were younger than she was. The problem in Shane is that Arthur is married to dull settler Van Heflin, and is the mother of a precocious kid played with wide-eyed earnestness by Brandon De Wilde.
Compounding matters, meanie Jack Palance – black hat and all – decides to wreak havoc on the town. As a result, young and adult hearts are torn to pieces, while big and small guns explode like cannon artillery fire.
Captured by Loyal Griggs’ evocative lenses and played out to the tune of Victor Young’s melancholy music, Shane – even if a tad overlong and heavy-handed – is one of the two or three best Westerns ever made. (With Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood attempted a similar romanticized/demythologizing approach to the Old West, but Shane remains the movie Western paradox.)
Unfortunately, after the filming of Shane was completed neither Brandon De Wilde nor anyone else came running after Jean Arthur yelling for her to come back, please, come back. Shane, though a mammoth box office hit, turned out to be her last film.
In the ensuing decades, she taught drama at Vassar, acted in a few plays, and in the mid-1960s starred briefly in The Jean Arthur Show on television.
The reclusive actress – in life, as in her movies, a staunch progressive and a free-thinking individual – spent the last years of her life in the Carmel area along the Central California coast. Following a stroke that left her severely impaired both physically and mentally, she died at age 90 in 1991.
As quoted in John Oller’s biography, after her death film reviewer Charles Champlin wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times:
“To at least one teenager in a small town (though I’m sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be – ought to be – judged by her spirit as well as her beauty. … The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.”
Jean Arthur on Turner Classic Movies
8:00 PM Silver Horde, The (1930)
An Alaskan fisherman is dogged by a ruthless competitor and an ambitious dance hall girl. Cast: Joel McCrea, Evelyn Brent, Jean Arthur. Director: George Archainbaud. Black and white. 75 min.
9:30 PM Adventure in Manhattan (1936)
A hotshot reporter and a temperamental actress clash when he investigates the backer of her latest show. Cast: Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Reginald Owen. Director: Edward Ludwig. Black and white. 73 min.
11:00 PM More the Merrier, The (1943)
The World War II housing shortage brings three people together for an unlikely romance. Cast: Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Charles Coburn. Director: George Stevens. Black and white. 104min.
8:00 PM Ex-Mrs. Bradford, The (1936)
A detective teams with his ex-wife to solve a murder. Cast: William Powell, Jean Arthur, James Gleason. Director: Stephen Roberts. Black and white. 82min.
9:30 PM If You Could Only Cook (1935)
An unhappy executive gets a job as a butler on a lark, only to fall for the family cook. Cast: Herbert Marshall, Jean Arthur, Leo Carillo. Director: William A. Seiter. Color. 75mins.11:00 PM More Than a Secretary (1936)
A secretary gets the glamour treatment to win her boss’ heart. Cast: Jean Arthur, George Brent, Lionel Stander. Director: Alfred E. Green. Black and white. 80min.
12:30 AM Too Many Husbands (right, 1940)
During World War II, a British platoon goes behind enemy lines in the Pacific. Cast: Jean Arthur, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas. Director: Wesley Ruggles. Color. 84 mins
8:00 PM Danger Lights (1931)
A family railroad is threatened when the owner’s girl falls for a conductor. Cast: Louis Wolheim, Robert Armstrong, Jean Arthur. Director: George B. Seitz. Black and white. 74min.
9:30 PM Public Hero No. 1 (1935)
An undercover G-man helps with a jailbreak to learn the mob’s secrets. Cast: Chester Morris, Jean Arthur, Joseph Calleia. Director: J. Walter Ruben. Black and white. 90min.
11:15 PM Party Wire (1935)
When a small-town girl’s boyfriend leaves in disgrace, gossips spread false reports of her pregnancy. Cast: Jean Arthur, Victor Jory, Charley Grapewin. Director:Mark Robson. Color. 70 mins
8:00 PM Arizona (right, 1940)
A tough pioneer woman needs a young man’s help in fighting land grabbers and finding love. Cast: William Holden, Jean Arthur, Warren William. Director: Wesley Ruggles. Black and white. 121min.
10:15 PM Shane (1953)
A mysterious drifter helps farmers fight off a vicious gunman. Cast: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Brandon de Wilde. Director: George Stevens. Color. 118min.
12:30 AM Impatient Years, The (1944)
A feuding couple re-creates their courtship in hopes of falling back in love. Cast: Jean Arthur, Lee Bowman, Charles Coburn. Director: Irving Cummings. Color. 91 mins